The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
"Sasha though suddenly of his stepmother," 'thought'?
This is a traditional-style fairy tale employing Russian folklore and mythology, and exploring the inevitable clash between religions: the extant traditional natural religion of the Russian hinterland, and the sick encroachment of Christianity into it. I loved the way the story started out, and enjoyed the ever-unfolding pace and power of the story-telling. There was no slack here, no annoying flashbacks or side-tracking and meandering, and it grabbed me from the start, even though I'm not usually a big fan of stories set in Russia.
This author knows her craft, and she did not cheapen the tale by writing it in first person, either. For that alone, I intend to paint an icon in her name! (You have to read the story to get that!). For me it really took off when a couple of new characters showed up, bringing conflict to what had been a rather idyllic existence for our main character. The fun thing was that the story never did play out quite as I might have expected, or even written it myself. There was always a twist, a turn, a quirk, an event to keep me guessing where this would go. I adored it for that.
The very best thing about it is the main character Vasilisa Petrovna, aka Vasya, aka Vasochka. Yes, the endless variations on names was one complaint I had. It was really hard, to begin with, to keep track of who was who since so many name variations, nicknames, and pet names were employed for the same character. I realize this is what Russians do, but this wasn't written in Russky! The author herself explains in an afterword that literal translation is not always a good goal for an author of fiction, and I agree with her very much, so a little more clarity would have been nice, but maybe that's just me.
That aside, Vasya was one of the most engaging and amazing characters I've ever read of. Alert to all Young Adult novel writers! If you want to know how to write a strong female character who is more than merely a male appendage, then you seriously need to read this novel. It's not the only novel which has a strong, independent female character who owns her life, and by 'strong', I mean within herself, not necessarily in her ability to kick someone's ass, but this is a fine example of such a novel. Katherine Arden gets it, period. Vasya was wonderful: a breath of fresh air in a world of lackluster and very forgettable young adult female characters.
The basic story begins with a Russian land baron in a period of history often called The Renaissance. That name didn't seem to fit here. Medieval felt more appropriate, but this was just after that era. In the particular case of this novel, I prefer to think of it as Age of Discovery! The land baron's wife dies giving birth to main character Vasya, a child who grows up rather odd and wild. She is so in need of minding - thinks her father Pyotr - that he travels many weeks to Moskva (curiously written as Moscow in the novel) to find a new wife at court. The ruling monarch is one of a small handful of Ivans to come to power in Russia. The story doesn't make this clear, but I assume it's Ivan the Fourth ("the Terrible"), who ruled from the mid- to late-sixteenth century.
He had three daughters named Anna(!), one of which died before she reached the age of two, and the other two of which were sent to convents. Such was the fate of unmarriageable girls, in Russia or anywhere. And that gives me an idea for a story! I hat eit when that happens! Anyway, Ivan did not like immodest girls, and he accidentally killed his own son during an argument over his daughter-in-law's perceived immodesty. In this story however, one Anna isn't sent to a convent; she escapes such a fate because Ivan adopts a plan to rid himself off this "crazy" girl to Pyotr in exchange for one of Pyotr's daughters marrying his son, and thereby helping secure his dynasty. This story succeeds admirably where Ivan failed so dismally in his quest!
The thing about Anna is what she shares in common with Vasya. The difference between them is the interpretation of what they see, and the subsequent fear or it, or lack of such fear. Anna often sees what she believes are demons around the palace, and she is scared to go into the wild, frozen north. When she arrives, she sees even more demons, and this time the demons see her. Meanwhile there's a strange nobleman (or maybe not so noble) who manipulates Pyotr into giving his youngest daughter a necklace, unless Pyotr wishes to see his oldest son die. But the family nursemaid manages to wangle it so that the daughter doesn't get the gift until she's of age. What will happen then, is anyone's guess!
The writing was evocative and engaging, but occasionally, a part here or there struck me as being 'off'. For example, at one point early in the story the youngest daughter, Vasya, wanders off and gets lost in the forest. She is rescued (fortuitously before a freezing night falls) by her older brother who was out searching for her. She had encountered a strange man in the forest before her brother brings her home. She was terrified, but we read, "Pyotr thrashed his daughter the next day, and she wept, though he was not cruel." Excuse me? He "thrashed" her, for getting lost and scared half to death, and he's not cruel? That struck a sour note for me.
And yes, I get that people, especially people in those climes and times, were a lot more rough and ready, and pursued what might be termed "frontier justice" with a lot more vigor than people do today, but this is cruel by any light. I get that someone like him might thrash his daughter, but to 'qualify' that by adding that her father was not cruel, was poorly done for me. This isn't the last time that Vasya is so disciplined. In fact, the second time it's an even greater injustice, but she's older then, and bears it stoically, especially since it simultaneously rescues her from something she was not looking forward to. It seems that Vasya is fated to live always slightly apart from her own people. This is one of the things which made her such an intriguing character for me.
Yes, nicknames and pet names! Here's one example: "After Sasha and Olga went away, Dunya noticed a change in Vasya." I had to actually parse that sentence before I got out of it exactly who was doing what here! Here's a classic example:
Alyosha was waiting for her. He grinned. "Maybe they will manage to marry you off after all, Vasochka."Alyosha is actually her older brother, Aleksei Petrovich, who is one of the few people who actually 'gets' Vasya and supports her. I really liked him, but this endless parade of nicknames was irritating (Google is going nuts underlining all these names in red as I write them! LOL!). Eventually I learned to overlook it and it became less important as the story progressed, but I could have done with a lot less of it. It's not necessary to name a person every time you speak to them or even of them. I think quite a few of these names could have been dispensed with and left the novel a more pleasing demeanor in the doing.
"Anna Ivanovna says not," Vasya replied composedly. "Too tall, skinny as weasel, feet and face like a frog." She clasped her hands and raised her eyes. "Alas, only princes in fairy tales take frog-wives. And they can do magic and become beautiful on command. I fear I will have no prince, Lyoshka."
That was my only real complaint about this story. I do have to say that the ending fell a bit flat given that the entire novel had been leading me to it. I was expecting more of Vasya, but overall the story was an engaging and very endearing one, and I fully recommend it. In general it's a tour-de-force of how to write a fable like this, mixing folklore and fairy-tale, and it was a joy to read. I very much look forward to Katherine Arden's next literary outing.